Inside North Carolina's Innovation Center

The North Carolina Innovation Center set a precedent for how states can innovate to save money. StateScoop gives you an exclusive look inside the facility.

RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina’s Innovation Center, where officials can try out technology from vendors before purchasing it, has potentially saved the state millions and has served as a model to other governments.

But it almost didn’t happen.

Originally, the North Carolina Legislature rejected plans for the state-of-the-art venue. But Chief Information Officer Chris Estes wasn’t deterred. He and a cross-agency IT team looked for ways to make the Innovation Center happen at minimal cost.

Estes persuaded the Department of Environmental and Natural Resources to donate half of a floor, approximately 10,000 square feet, to serve as the center’s home base. To prepare the space, IT workers came in after work to paint the center’s walls and prepare it for the technology it would soon house. From there, the innovation center’s eventual director, Eric Ellis, said he began calling companies the state already had technology contracts with — starting with AT&T — and worked with the state’s legal and IT teams to establish a demo device agreement.

Now, the multi-room area features demo units from furniture and technology companies who want to do business with the state — from a state-of-the-art teleconferencing system to touch screen computers and perceptive-pixel screens. The center helps the state embrace the “try before you buy” model, Ellis said.

One of the first projects tested at the iCenter was the state’s digital commons initiative, a move to unify the look and feel of the state’s websites. Director of Digital Services Billy Hylton said the project would serve as a gateway to the state’s venture into digital services.

Other states are learning from North Carolina’s example. Twenty-five have formed the National Innovation Community, where they work together to improve the implementation of modern technology into government. Meanwhile, Indiana has created a similar center and other states are following suit. The iCenter has been recognized as a StateScoop 50 winner and was named a finalist for the 2015 National Association of State Chief Information Officers’ State IT Recognition Awards.

While the technology it features is only temporary, the center signals a shift in the state’s attitude toward technology, Ellis said. And that shift could bode well for the his IT department as state lawmakers mull its future , Ellis said.

“We’re trying to make innovation a part of our culture,” Estes said.